by Linda McGovern
Grand Isle, a three hour drive south of New Orleans, is on the outermost shore of Louisiana. The drive takes quite some time since the winding narrow road is accessible by only two cars at a time. The slow pace gives you a chance to pass a rather scenic view of bayou life. Small towns, small homes, and bait shops line the side of the road, a land full of seafood restaurants and fishing gear to buy or rent. It made me wish I wasn’t allergic to shellfish since the smells were everything I imagined Cajun food would be.
While driving, my husband and I noticed the many signs for “flying fish” and it confirmed my feeling of being a long way from home in Boston. Both windows were down to cool the humid August air. The mild, warm ocean breeze had a rhythm all its own and came and went with each turn we took. My senses were beginning to awaken.
I had wanted to visit Grand Isle, the setting for The Awakening by Kate Chopin, since I first read the book in my college freshman English class. It was then that I became fascinated by the novel, Kate Chopin, its setting, and characters. After several re-readings I am still as passionate about the work as when I was first introduced. I heard its language and it spoke deeply to me. I felt Edna Pontellier’s longings, desires and her struggle. Edna represents the human need to discover and realize one’s true calling, one’s individuality in a society that encourages conformity. The Awakening speaks to both women and men, and is about the search for self and the journey to find truth and one’s place in relation to the world.
Edna needed to be freed from her constraints to be able to find herself. It is rare, even today, to truly venture above and beyond society’s norms and conventions. It is so much easier and safer to remain inside than outside. The Awakening speaks to the inner soul that seeks to explore uncharted territories.
When we finally reached our destination, I felt slightly disappointed because Grand Isle did not match my mind’s eye impression, as it was described in The Awakening. Grand Isle was devastated on October 1, 1893 by a hurricane, which killed 2,000 people, forever destroying the island as Chopin knew it. In her day, the resort was an escape from the crime and disease of New Orleans. Driving down the main road I felt sure we could have been visiting any gathering of beach cottages on the Atlantic coast. The no-vacancy signs stared down our intentions of staying a day or so. But we decided to try to find a spot to catch the view, stretch our legs a bit and relax after the long ride.
I looked around and thought how different it all must have been in Chopin’s day. We found a deserted spot next to the water not far from an oil refinery. Sitting on a large, bare log I realized, Wow! This is the Gulf of Mexico. Finally, I was really here.
I felt an immense amount of joy and anticipation swell up inside me knowing I was on the same ground where Chopin and Edna had once been long ago. This had been the place that inspired the setting of the novel. The distracting, artificial, technological advancements surrounding us faded into the distance; they just didn’t seem to matter as much. We moved closer to the edge, for a better view of Grand Isles waters. The day was at an end and the boats were headed home. Several picturesque shrimp boats with their wide winged nets slowly passed by. Each boat was led by dolphins riding the waves. Up and down they went disappearing silently into the water.
As the sun began to drop from the sky, the clouds were transformed into an array of vibrant colors: reds, yellows, oranges, and pinks. It was an amazing view of the reflection of lighted colors cast upon the water. The day had been warm and as the sun set, the air became cooler and the night breeze blew gently over us. I began to think about how enticed Edna was by the ocean’s incessant call, its beauty and its echoes of memory. I thought of how romantic and sensuous the island must have been long ago when it was far less populated and there was no bridge to the island; one could only access it by boat. I visualized the sounds, the scents and the Creole culture. The Awakening is written in the rhythm of the summer breeze on Grand Isle, lazy, warm and timeless. The novel has always seemed surreal to me; a reverie, a hazy and cloudy dream that is as seductive as a warm summer rain.
I have pictured Edna’s transformation like the metamorphosis of a butterfly that eventually becomes what it is meant to be naturally. She escapes her closed, cocoon-like existence and is able to finally realize herself.
As I contemplated these thoughts, we noticed that there was some movement across the water on another tiny island or inlet quite a distance from us. Looking through some binoculars, we observed what appeared to be, several wild goats along the shore. There were also other creatures that looked like otters, which appeared to be playing. This added to the dream-like experience of the sunset, the water’s reflection, the dolphins, and the boats. It was truly a magical and unique moment that we were lucky enough to witness. By opening my heart and mind to all that Grand Isle had to offer, this spectacle unfolded. I began to feel so small, but a part of something larger, under the vast wave of sky with the stars becoming clear and glistening brightly. As I looked across the water, I thought of Edna’s relationship with the ocean and how she learns to befriend it rather than to fear it. There are so many ambiguities concerning the sea. So many of us are drawn to the sea, to be alone, as a source of power, contemplation or a connection with the natural world. The waters have creative and destructive potential. The sea invites us but can take us at any time. Edna’s soul was freed at Grand Isle and her union with the sea was where she was most accepted, most liberated. This was her home, her final resting place.
Kate Chopin, like Edna, remained true to her ideals. Both went against the current of the day. Just as Grand Isle is the furthest edge of land so too did Chopin and Edna take their position in society. Grand Isle is a perfect setting of the novel and metaphor for the way Chopin lived her life. She took things to the limit, to the edge and questioned the unquestionable. She was a woman before her time. As Edna’s friend Mademoiselle Reisz states in The Awakening, “The artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies.”
Chopin went the distance and has made a difference in the lives of those who have read her work. I know it has for me. I’ll come back to Grand Isle just as I have come back to Chopin, for Grand Isle and Chopin are synonymous, inseparable for me now. It will always be Chopin’s Grand Isle. She has inspired us to look inside ourselves, to awaken the dormant butterfly, and to set it free.
Visit Grand Isle
Grand Isle Tourist Commission
P.O. Box 817, LA Hwy. 1, Grand Isle, LA 70358
Grand Isle State Park
Grand Isle State Park-
Admiral Craik Dr., Grand Isle, LA 70358